Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Prototype Gearhead Interview

My good friend Randy has had the great fortune of owning and driving a lot of spectacular cars over the years.  His enthusiasm, breadth of experience and knowledge combined with his eagerness to share with other car nuts are some of the reasons I've coined him "The Prototype Gearhead".

ANF:  It was your dad’s
enthusiasm that got you into cars, is that right?

Randy:  He definitely contributed to it.  My father’s main interest in cars was with the money to be had in the grey market business.  Even as a young man he always had nice cars because his parents were well to do, but I don’t think his enthusiasm ever ran as deep as mine does.

ANF:  Can you tell us about his gray import and Federalization business?
Randy:  Many businessmen found a niche back in the mid 80’s and 90’s in the Grey Market industry, and there were both legitimate and unscrupulous operators.  My dad and his partners took orders from customers who were looking for cars not Federalized for sale in the United States.  In a nutshell, an exotic not destined for the US market would be purchased, shipped to our shores and then “legalized” to US standards.  First, the car would be located in Europe - new or used - then shipped to the US either by sea or air.  When it reached our shores the DOT would be waiting to issue a bond of compliance - this gave my dad and his partners time to federalize the car to DOT and EPA standards.
ANF:  What types of cars did you grow up around?

Randy:  There were so many it’s hard to remember them all.  A few of the most amazing ones that I actually got to ride in or drive were:
Lamborghini Countach S & 5000 Quattrovalvole, Silhouette, Miura S, Cheetah (LM002), Porsche 930 Turbo, DP Motorsport 935, BMW M1, M635 CSi (M6), Aston Martin Lagonda, Mercedes Gelandewagen, Ferrari BB512, 288 GTO, 400i, AMG 500 SEC, SEL, 6.9.
Growing up with so many amazing cars in our garage I became jaded and biased.  Being young and immature I also found myself feeling “superior” to my fellow car enthusiasts.  If I heard someone bashing or bragging about a certain model I would say to myself “Shut up, I have driven a Ferrari 288 GTO and a BB512!”  In my mind it was "this guy has probably never even sat inside an exotic, so where does he get off expressing his opinions?" (Editor’s note - today Randy, tempered and wizened with age, is one of the kindest and most humble people I've ever had the pleasure of knowing.)
ANF:  We’ve seen the photos of you driving your dad’s 288GTO and Countach, but are there any other memorable drives that come to mind?  If so, what made them special?

Randy:  The 288 GTO and Countach were by far the coolest cars he owned and eventually sold.  I only drove the GTO for about two hours with my dad in the passenger seat - he had already promised to sell the car to a client in Colorado so he was there to make sure I didn't crash.  I remember how deceptively fast the car was, and how quiet it was compared to the manic Countach.  The day I drove it we were chased by at least twenty drooling car freaks everywhere we went, and a gas station stop turned into an impromptu car show!  The station's owner was so annoyed he actually threatened to call the cops.  I remember this was at the Shell station in Pacific Beach.
Driving the Countach was even more insane because it was the dream car of the decade.  Everyone wanted to be your friend - men, women and children all clamored to sit in it, and I was all too eager to share my enthusiasm.  The sound of those six weber sidedraft carbs sucking air into all twelve cylinders just inches behind your head was intoxicating - it was a sound you wanted to hear all day.  Hours after riding in the car, you could still hear and feel it!  I think it’s hilarious how modern day testers (Top Gear's James May comes to mind) complain how uncomfortable and uncompromising the Countach is - you know, horrid driving position, blind spots, heavy clutch, steering and so on.  They forget that back in the 80’s most exotics had similar "flaws"!  The BMW M1 was probably the only exception, but it is German after all.  Comparing the Countach to any modern day exotic like a Ferrari 458 or even an older Diablo is illogical to me.  The Countach was in a class all by itself and its abilities should never be compared to a newer exotic, it’s just not proper in my opinion.
ANF:  Tell us about some of your personal, pre-M5 cars.
Randy:  I befriended two hard core Toyota/Datsun enthusiasts and became hooked on Japanese performance cars for my fast car fix.  This was in the age before turbos and electronic engine management, and I went through the natural evolution process by starting with headers, then upgraded to side draft Mikunis, camshafts and polishing/porting mods.  Among my projects were a Celica, a Supra and a rotary-powered 510 wagon.  The Celica had the most mods, including a swap of the anemic 22R truck engine in favor of the home market (JDM) 18RG DOHC screamer.  Back then my goal was to blow the doors off American muscle cars - Mustang GT 5.0's and Camaros were my favorite prey, and we loved to show them that there was indeed a replacement for displacement!

ANF:  Can you tell us the story of your E28 M5?  When and why was it bought?  Please tell us about your journey with the car through the years, the modifications you’ve made, and anything else that you’d like to add.
Randy:  After college I got a real job and decided it was time to get an adult car.  I settled on a BMW 528e with its lackluster 2.8 ETA motor - it was quite torquey but after 5,000 RPM it raised the white flag.  Soon the rumors of the E28 M5 coming to America proved to be true, the Europeans had been enjoying this wolf in sheep’s clothing since 1985 and it was about time we got a taste of it here.  The M5 really appealed to me as it was similar in concept to my dad’s old Mercedes 450 SEL 6.9 - almost 300 HP in a 70's family sedan!  That car always laid waste to any wannabe race car on the street.

October 1999, pre-bumper swap
I concentrated all my financial resources towards owning the first M5 delivered to San Diego.  After many months of waiting and a hefty deposit I took delivery of the car in the late spring of 1988 - the car had a production date of Oct 1987.  After a few months of ownership I fitted Dinan's engine management chip and exhaust cam gear.  The US M5 was down about 30 HP from its Euro sister due to emissions compliance, and the cat was thought to be the main culprit - this later proved to be an incorrect assumption.  Removing it reduced backpressure but also reduced torque!  It seems the M engineers really knew their stuff.  To compensate for the US-spec car's lower HP rating its exhaust system, lower compression pistons and gearing were designed to work in unison to give the US S38 motor the same “grunt” as the Euro motor - modifying this delicate balance made the car slower.
The main weakness of the US-spec motor was its lack of low end torque below 5,000 RPM, and Dinan solved this by developing the aforementioned exhaust cam gear to slightly retard the timing - this made the cylinders fill more quickly at low revs resulting in higher torque at lower speeds.  With the corresponding Dinan ECU chip peak power rose from 256 HP to a claimed 301 HP along with an increase in torque of 30 ft. lbs., eclipsing the Euro-market car's 282 HP in the process.  Many disputed these claims but I don’t think that any of them had actually ever driven a similarly-equipped example.  Personally, I felt a huge difference in the car’s performance immediately after fitting.
I must have gone through four custom made exhausts fabricated by a buddy who owned Jack’s Muffler Service.  Jack was famous in the hot rodding community for many years and was eager to use my M5 as a test mule.  After a few years of trial and error, we determined the best exhaust for making power was actually the OEM US-spec system!  This in conjunction with a Fahey track pipe and bespoke headers yielded the most power gains.
After 234,000 miles the number three cylinder piston ring cracked and was spitting pieces back into the intake.  For an engine that was revved to redline almost every day I was really impressed how long it lasted - the S38 is truly an overbuilt engine!  The rebuild process took about a year to complete, during which time I decided to upgrade to a Dinan 3.9 stroker motor, but sourcing the billet crank and forged pistons was difficult as Dinan were no longer producing parts for such an old motor.  A word of warning to anyone with ideas of rebuilding an S38 for more power - better be ready to spend the equivalent of a new Honda Civic!  The stroker engine makes about 345 horsepower at the crank and is very thirsty - I average about 13 MPG with non-hooligan driving! (Editor’s note - in my experience Randy rarely drives "non-hooligan" style, and has told me the car averages about 8 MPG when driven hard.)
Since day one, my goal was to convert the car back to European trim, just the way the BMW M GmBH originally intended it.  My main objective was to dump the ugly DOT mandated bumpers, and after a lot of research I discovered the project was not easy and many unique parts had to be sourced from Europe.  Total parts cost for a metal bumper conversion was about $5,000 - the plastic M Technique body kit was about $1,500 more and did not include painting!
In 1999 I was able to source an original AC Schnitzer body kit while in Frankfurt, Germany.  Back in the 80's the kit retailed for about $4,000, but I was able to buy it for about $1,200 including the cost of shipping it home.  This kit allowed me to change out the US-spec bumpers in favor of a more streamlined look for roughly half the cost of either European OEM system.  Around the same time I decided to paint the car BMW "Carbon Black", an E39 M5 color.  This was a scary decision because I knew changing the color would devalue the car and also cause "M experts" to question its legitimacy - the US M5 only came in black. 
Ultimately the color change turned out to be very subtle, with the slight blueish hue only obvious in direct sunlight.
There have been six wheel/tire combo changes in my 24 years of owner ship.  The most current (and I’m sure not last) set are 18” BBS RK IIs, on which I've had the lips mirror polished and centers powder coated BBS gold for the “old school” look.  I have been criticized by "purists" for mounting such large wheels/tires on an old BMW, but I ignore them! (Editor’s note - Randy tells me that there have been virtually no negative effects on ride quality or handling as a result of fitting larger wheels.)

The OEM antenna was deleted and substituted with an E30 M3 roof-mount.  I also replaced the seemingly candle-lit US-spec headlights with the more powerful European system.  The most obvious difference between the two is that the low beams are now 7” instead of the US-spec 5 ¾” sealed beams.  The Euro-spec headlight wiper system was omitted for aesthetic reasons.

I forgot to mention the M Technique fender flares and Brembo monoblock brakes, along with dozens of other detail changes and performance modifications.  Nearly all maintenance, repair and modification work is done by me - it's both a source of pride and a big part of the fun of ownership.

ANF:  Why have you held on to it for so long?  Do you think you'll ever sell it?

Randy:  My reasons for keeping the car so long are numerous.  There are no other sedate-looking sedans with racecar-like specs and a true motorsport heritage.  The motor has individual throttle bodies and tuned velocity stacks - not many super cars had this type of intake system back in the 80’s!  The intake honk still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.  It's very practical and stealthy - you can take three of your buddies and their luggage to Vegas in record time while avoiding unwanted attention from the highway patrol.  The car takes skill and restraint to drive well, I like that there is no modern electronic trickery to save your ass from stupidity!  I will own and daily drive this car until my last breath.
ANF:  As I understand it, you dropped out of the high-stress world of finance after you made enough money to buy your M5, then became a flight attendant largely so you could travel to all the world’s great car shows for free – can you tell us a bit more about that?
Randy:  Well, I didn’t choose to change careers, rather the economy (after many layoffs) chose for me.  I was dared by a friend to apply for a flight attendant position for a major airline in 1996, as he knew I had a keen interest in commercial aircraft.  God knows I didn’t have the aptitude to be a pilot so being a flight attendant was the next best thing to me, and I knew that making money was not as important as being happy and seeing the world.  I had my sights on seeing the best car shows and most amazing cities in the world for free!   As an airline employee, I was entitled to free first class travel to any destination I desired, and if my own airline did not travel to a particular country I could easily hitch a ride on a partner airline for only $35.00.  Before 9/11, we were even allowed to sit in the cabin jump seats!  The job restricted flight attendants to a maximum of 80 hours a month, which meant only two weeks’ worth of work a month!  I took advantage of my schedule and spent every free day off travelling the world, and would often run into other car enthusiasts who were travelling on their airline employee benefits.
ANF:  What is your favorite car show or car hot-spot in the world?
Randy:  Each show had its own merits, but my three favorites where the Tokyo, Frankfurt, and Geneva shows.
Tokyo was fantastic for its innovative and wacky concepts, and also for the chance to see JDM models not sold in the US. 
Geneva was best for seeing aftermarket tuner's products, and probably attracted the wealthiest enthusiasts as well.  Ruf, Alpina, AMG, Hartge and so on were a large presence, and it was not unusual for attendees to order two or even three models on the spot!  The first year I attended, I remember the airport tarmac being littered with private Lear jets from every corner of the world.  It was truly an overwhelming experience. 
Frankfurt is best for enthusiasts because that is where auto makers really cater to us.  For example, BMW M’s paddock was always full of the latest M cars, with examples of all the nearly endless possible options combinations on hand.  There was even an M café for owners to relax away from the maddening crowds, in which every M engine ever produced was proudly displayed like art for you to admire while you sipped cappuccino on leather seats.  The Frankfurt crowds also seemed to be more informed, more car savvy than at any other show I have attended.  US car shows really pale in comparison.

ANF:  You also have a rather special motorcycle; can you tell us about it?
Randy:  I have a highly customized Ducati 900 Supersport, which is a rare and numbered bike - the clamp plaque states it’s #619 of 1,000 made.  From the factory, this model was only painted red or yellow with a bronze colored frame.  My bike is painted Ferrari nero while the frame and wheels are powder coated in their signature red.  In my quest to be unique in a sea of Ducatis, I have also added every carbon fiber accessory available for the bike, with which I estimate to have cut about 10 lbs. off its total weight.  It placed third at a prestigious Glendale, California bike show in 2010. 
Unlike most Ducatis which are treated like art and rarely ridden, my bike is ridden frequently and has racked up more than 54,000 miles in the three years I’ve owned it.  It's a never-ending project and more mods are in her future for sure.

I've always loved motorcycles as much as cars, and it's fascinates me how segregated the two communities are!  Most of my motorcycle buddies dislike or have little interest in cars and vice-versa.  I'm proud to enjoy both methods of motion, as each has its own merits.  I'm very lucky to have two very unique machines to enjoy equally!
ANF:  What is your all-time favorite car?  Your currently-in-production favorite?
Randy:  That's a difficult question to answer because there are at least ten cars on my wish list.  To me the ultimate no-compromise car is any model of Pagani Zonda.  I think every enthusiast dreams of one day designing and building their own ultimate supercar, and Mr. Pagani is living our dreams.  Even with the Huayra in production, Mr. Pagani will continue to build the Zonda by request - good to know in case the lottery money rolls in!
ANF:  What do you think about the future of our hobby?  How will the disappearance of the manual transmission and eventually the internal combustion engine affect it?
Randy:  Back in the day, I had a chance to drive an EV1 in Los Angeles for a few hours when a friend leased one from GM.  I was really impressed by its performance but not its styling.  I put my enthusiasm for it on a shelf after that day because I knew the world wasn’t ready for an electric car - fast forward to today, and I think we're all ready.  We have done too much damage to our planet and it’s time we kill the combustion engine.  Electric car production processes will improve and become cleaner and more efficient as technology progresses.  It will take some time for me to adjust to an electric car reality, but ultimately I won’t have much trouble doing so - after all, fossil fuels are not an infinite resource.  That said, I hope we will be allowed to keep our beloved old fossil fuel burning machines and drive them from time-to-time.
ANF:  What is it about cars that you love?
Randy:  I love how ingrained they are in our daily lives.  To me they are an extension of one’s self, a source of self-expression. They're one of the most remarkable machines ever invented.  I find it hard to believe that there are people out there who see cars only as an appliance with which to travel from point A to point B - in my opinion these people are missing out on one of life's great joys!

that noise!

Big thanks, Randy!

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